EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2017-18 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
Inside Rick and Gina Stephenson’s Lake Tahoe townhouse, through an iron gate and down a winding staircase is a wine cellar.
But it’s not just any wine cellar.
The Shakespeare Rock Cellars — named for the nearby peak on the lake’s East Shore — has been the site of more than 400 dinners donated by the Stephensons to charities for auction. By their estimate, the dinners have raised $5 million for nonprofits in the Tahoe Basin and Northern Nevada over the last 17 years.
The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society, Keep Memory Alive, Barton and Carson Tahoe’s hospital foundations, and Let ‘Em Run Foundation are just a handful of the organizations that have benefited.
“For me it’s about giving back,” Gina said in an interview this September with Tahoe Magazine. “I think everybody in this world needs to have some way of giving back, and for us it works well because it’s something we both love to do.”
Each eight-person dinner is served at the artfully decorated table in the 550-square-foot cellar, which the couple dug out and built when they discovered a small crawlspace under their house years ago. For the meals, Gina and Rick act as servers, chefs and sommeliers.
Gina handles the champagne and appetizers, which could include favorites like crab cakes with spicy dressing and cilantro, baby sea scallops drizzled in oil, or mushroom caps stuffed with rosemary and wild game.
Rick, the former executive chef at the high-end Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola, California, prepares elaborate multi-course meals in the kitchen the couple built down in the cellar. He pairs each course with one of the cellar’s thousands of bottles of wine — 1,500 on display and 6,000 in storage — including an intermezzo of champagne and sorbet and a post-dessert treat of port and chocolates.
“We’ve done everything from short ribs, rib eye and steak, to lobster, salmon and chicken marsala,” said Rick. “After that, there is a flaming dessert — usually either bananas foster or cherries jubilee.”
Over the years, the Shakespeare Rock Cellars has hosted dignitaries like former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and current U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada).
But, according to the Stephensons, you don’t need to break the bank to enjoy good wine — nor travel far.
“The Sierra Foothills, down around Murphys and the Shenandoah Valley, makes some very good wines, and a lot of these wineries haven’t been discovered yet,” said Rick. “You can go to Napa Valley, but they tend to be a lot more pricey. I think that the Sierra Foothills or the Paso Robles wines tend to be a better pick as far as the value you get for the quality that you get.”
Scott Harvey Wines in Sutter Creek and Renner Winery and Broll Mountain Vineyards in Murphys are Rick’s top three picks for the region.